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The Nature of the False memory Phenomenon

Both Reviere and Singer raise the crucial question of whether we should trust the accounts proffered by the retractors. They point out that the conceptual-encounter method involves the coconstruction of a narrative account that appears similar to what happens in the process of (hopefully well-conducted) therapy. Given the fact that the research partners (RPs) have constructed a previous abuse narrative, what privileges their current retractor narrative? Why should we believe their second narrative, especially when their credibility is in doubt because it contradicts their earlier narrative? More generally, how can a narrative methodology tell us anything about objective truth (in the sense of historical facts)? The following are my arguments for believing the retractors' current narratives.

First, in each case we have independent evidence that a charge of abuse was made on the basis of memories purportedly recovered from complete amnesia. Thus, quite apart from the specifics of the current narratives (to be discussed in the method section), the narratives are about objective facts for which we have evidence. Although I did not conduct as complete an examination as FMS skeptics might want, I spoke with Ann's mother, read the accusatory letter she sent to her parents, and saw the books that she had carefully underlined. I interviewed Beth's mother and father, and spoke with a psychiatrist who examined her after her retraction. I verified Cath's hospital records and spoke with her current therapist. I spoke with Doris's mother and her friend. Therefore, I have little doubt that unsubstantiated accusations were made on the basis of what occurred in therapy. These are facts for which we are attempting to account. By contrast we have no factual evidence for a repressed memory narrative. No one says that abuse occurred and there are no school or hospital records that suggest abuse. Although, as Reviere noted, we cannot prove that abuse did not occur, we must create a narrative about its imagined existence.

Second, no evidence exists for the sort of repression and retrieval we would need to imagine. In arguing for the possibility of a currently denied abuse history, Reviere argues that the memory of early childhood abuse can be forgotten and remembered with more or less accuracy. As evidence she (and Coons) cites studies such as those by Briere and Conte ( 1993 ) and Williams ( 1994 ). However, these studies do not meet Pope and Hudson ( 1995 ) three straightforward criteria that there be objective evidence of (a) abuse, (b) a complete amnesia for the abuse, and (c) a recovery of memory. Briere and Conte ( 1993 ) did not find independent evidence of abuse (other than what the purported rememberer reports), and Williams ( 1994 ), who had evidence for abuse and some evidence for forgetting, did not report that the abuse was ever remembered! Personally, I believe that some clinical evidence indicates that persons can recall traumatic events that were not remembered during an earlier period of life. This sort of forgetting and recall appears to be possible in two sets of circumstances: (a) The abused or perpetrator moved to a different location so that an isolated event or period of abuse could be set aside without subsequent cuing of the memories; or (b) the person managed repeated and severe abuse by dissociative mechanisms that led to the absence of all memories for the categories of experience or period of time during which the abuse occurred.In the first type of circumstance, memories return when sufficient cuing is provided. When such persons are asked if there was ever a period of time when they had no memories of currently reported abuse, a majority indicate that they could have remembered the abuse if they had wanted to or been reminded of it ( Melchert,> 1996). In the second type of circumstance, there is some evidence that suggests that some memories can be recaptured ( Martinez-Taboo, 1996). However, such cases are characterized by the absence of large blocks of memory and pervasive signs of dissociation prior to therapy. Note, no evidence exists that a child may be sexually abused, completely dissociate from the experience while functioning normally (doing well in school, getting along with other people, holding jobs, not exhibiting bizarre behavior), and then recover the memory. Because we have a great deal of evidence that recovered memories can be completely untrue (as when supposed victims of satanic rapes prove to be virgins), taking the retractors' accounts as veridical seems more parsimonious.Third, no evidence suggests a "return to denial" narrative. Let us imagine, as Singer suggests, that the retractors may have recovered memories of abuse, "decompensated" from the horrific shock, and then rerepressed their memories so they would be accepted by their repressive but otherwise "loving" families. One can imagine such a scenario; and certainly abuse victims and their families may deny abuse. However, this imagined possibility does not fit what we know about the four cases presented in the target article.

1. We do not see a short period of decompensation that is then replaced by a more healthy state as memories are reintegrated into the personality. Rather the patients get progressively worse over years of "therapy."
2. No evidence suggests rigid "happy" families who reject the child who charges abuse. Ann's father wrote a loving letter after he was charged with abuse; Beth initially had her mother's full support; Cath never denied the alcoholism in her family (and, although her accusations of sexual abuse certainly alienated her family they continued trying to reach out to her); Doris's father was already dead.
3. The retractions do not occur as the result of family pressure. In Ann's case, her family physician's judgment was crucial. In Beth's and Cath's cases, both were involved with other therapists, who supported a retractor rather than a victim narrative. In Doris's case, the change of heart occurs because of the loving care of a personal friend.

Fourth, we suppose to set aside all issues of fact and abandon any quest for historical truth. How might we judge the merits of different narrative truths? In his fascinating book on freedom, reality, and personhood, the philosopher Macmurray ( 1961 ) suggested that we are always in relation with other persons and that these relations always comprise two motivational strands--a genuine caring for the other and a troublesome fear for ourselves. He asserted that freedom, reality, and personal development occur when we succeed in letting our caring for others dominate our fear for ourselves. Is Ann freer when she tells her current story--that she was overly perfect because she wanted her parents to be proud of her--a story that lets her love her father and mother, or when she adopts the therapist's story that she was abused and must focus on herself? Is Beth freer when she adopts a narrative that she is a survivor of her father's abuse or when she adopts a biblical narrative that leads her to trust the power of a savior's sacrifice? Is Cath freer when she allows her caring for her mother to dominate her concern that she may have been abused? Is Doris freer when she allows herself to grieve for her lost infant or when she is preoccupied with her images of satanic ritual abuse?

One might object that "loving" narratives will only "work" in essentially loving families--families where the care for others dominated self-concern. If this is true, then because the "loving" narratives clearly "work" in these four cases--because the retractors are back at work, off drugs, out of the hospital, and in contact with their families--then their current stories must be truer than the abuse stories.

Turning to the more general issue of how we should regard abuse narratives, I share Singer's concern about their pervasive influence and their contribution to a general distrust of physical contact and intimacy. Furthermore, as he notes, false narratives undermine "the legitimacy of actual tragic cases of sexual and physical abuse." Certainly, we can agree that we must face real abuse cases and help people cope with the self-blame that is so often present. However, Singer appears to blame persons who develop FMS, whereas I view them as victims of poor therapy who should be helped. In my view, a small percentage of therapists appear to misuse their power. Worse, our profession appears to be denying this fact instead of establishing ways to intervene in these cases.

I am particularly troubled by Singer's assumption "that retractors are unlikely to be reliable informants [because] they have produced two dramatically divergent accounts of significant events in their lives and at different times held adamantly to the truth of each contradictory account." This implies that retractors are either inherently unreliable (i.e., pathological liars or extremely troubled individuals) or incapable of understanding their own experience. The retractors I interviewed were deeply concerned about the fact of their divergent accounts. They realized that they appeared unreliable and were living with the pain that their former therapists would not believe them. They were desperately trying to make sense of what had happened and were wrestling with self-blame. I respected their courage in facing the embarrassing facts and sympathized with their predicament in knowing the doubts of others and the challenge they faced in again believing in themselves.

 
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